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CARDUUS nutans

Image of Carduus nutans

Jesse Saylor



Botanical Name

CARDUUS nutans

Plant Common Name

Musk Thistle, Nodding Thistle

General Description

Although an impressive plant with ornate leaves and showy red-violet flowers, the nodding thistle remains one of the most widespread weeds in temperate climates. Native to Europe and Asia, it grows as a biennial with deep taproot, but in milder climates grows also as a winter annual.

In its first year of growth, the nodding thistle develops a basal rosette of deeply lobed, spiny, dark green leaves. As the plant ages, often in the second year, the rosette sends up a stem lined with more spiny leaves in an alternating pattern topped with large spiny buds. The musk-scented flowers are a striking, shade of violet-red, although variations of white to pink can also occur. The flowers often nod and appeal to bees and butterflies, among other pollinators. Each blossom yields hundreds of yellow-brown seeds that scatter in the wind. With such aggressive self-sowing, nodding thistle quickly creates a weedy colony that’s painful to weed out.

Well-adapted to any sunny location, nodding thistle prospers in a wide range of soil types as long as they are not soggy. It even withstands high winds and salty sands near the ocean and quickly invades and covers meadows, roadsides and pastures. Animals will not graze on its spiny foliage, so it’s equally unwelcome in pasture .

While rated a noxious weed across most of the United States, Canada and Australia, one benefit of the nodding thistle is that bees love it and it yields high-quality honey.


  • AHS Heat Zone

    10 - 1

  • USDA Hardiness Zone

    2 - 10

  • Sunset Zone

    A1, A2, A3, 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24

  • Plant Type


  • Sun Exposure

    Full Sun, Partial Sun

  • Height

    3'-6' / 0.9m - 1.8m

  • Width

    1'-2' / 0.3m - 0.6m

  • Bloom Time

    Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, Summer

  • Native To

    World/Pandemic, Europe, Asia

Growing Conditions

  • Soil pH

    Acidic, Neutral, Alkaline

  • Soil Drainage

    Well Drained

  • Soil type

    Clay, Loam, Sand

  • Tolerances

    Pollution, Drought, Salt, Soil Compaction

  • Growth Rate

    Very Fast

  • Water Requirements

    Drought Tolerant, Average Water

  • Habit


  • Seasonal Interest

    Spring, Summer, Winter

Ornamental Features

  • Flower Interest


  • Flower Color

    Red, Violet

  • Fruit Color

    Gold, Sandy Brown

  • Foliage Color (Spring)

    Green, Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Summer)

    Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Fall)

    Dark Green

  • Foliage Color (Winter)

    Dark Green

  • Fragrant Flowers


  • Fragrant Fruit


  • Fragrant Foliage


  • Bark or Stem Fragrant


  • Repeat Bloomer


  • Showy Fruit


  • Edible Fruit


  • Showy Foliage


  • Foliage Texture


  • Foliage Sheen


  • Evergreen


  • Showy Bark


Special Characteristics

  • Sharp or Has Thorns


  • Invasive


  • Attracts


  • Self-Sowing